I am Thou

We are often angry at others for embodying specific qualities or behaviours that we do not like about ourselves.

This, at least, has been true for me.

I have burned with anger at students for not listening to me, for not doing their work, or for being chronically late.

I have been annoyed at others for being socially clueless or awkward.

I have been frustrated at my mother for asking “stupid questions” or not being more sensitive to how I need to be cared for.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and my all-time favourite spiritual teacher, has helped me immensely to figure out that one of the reasons I have gotten so frustrated at these people is because I often do these exact same things, and I hate this. 

But self-awareness is the key to changing everything.

The following exercise promoted by Rohr has helped bring this self-awareness in specific situations when I am angry and don’t know why. It has also helped me to have more self-compassion, which is the key to having compassion and patience with others.

He calls it “Shadow Work”:

“There are many ways to do shadow work–the work of seeing and integrating your hidden and denied self. For example, your subconscious appears in images and stories as you sleep; paying attention to your dreams can give you insight into shadow. One of the easiest ways to discover your shadow is to observe your negative reactions to others and what pushes your buttons. Most often, what annoys you in someone else is a trait in yourself that you haven’t acknowledged.

 

“Byron Katie has a simple process to help you own your judgments and turn your focus to the plank in your own eye. The following is adapted from Katie’s Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet and Four Questions.

 

“Recall a stressful situation that is still fresh in your mind. Return to that time and place in your imagination.

 

“Name your frustration, fear, or disappointment, and the object of this feeling in a simple statement. For example: I am angry with John because he never listens to me.

 

“Now ask yourself four questions with an open heart, waiting for your truest answer to arise:

1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)

2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?

3. How do you react, and what happens when you believe this thought?

4. Who would you be without the thought?

“Turn the thought around in three ways: putting yourself in the other’s place, putting the other person in your place, and stating the exact opposite.

-I am angry with myself because I never listen to me.

-John is angry with me because I never listen to him.

-John does listen to me.

“Find ways in which each “turnaround” is true in this situation.

“This practice brings your nebulous shadow into focus, giving you something tangible to embrace. Do this necessary work all your life and you’ll discover more and more freedom and greater capacity to love self and others.”

I have done this exercise for the past few weeks and found that it has helped immeasurably. Not that all of a sudden I have ceased to get angry. But I hold on to it less, for shorter periods of time, and begin to care for myself which is turn gives me the ability to understand and care for others. 

Grateful today for this.

Reference:

This exercise, promoted by Rohr, is adapted from “The Work” by Byron Katie, thework.com/en/do-work

For Further Study:

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Say Her Name: A Feminist’s Reflection on St. Mary Magdalene


I have hated my name for as long as I can remember. During the week I was born in January 1980, the name “Jennifer” was so popular (2nd only to “Jessica”) that there were like 6 other Jennifers born on the same floor.

My surprised mother had thought that it was an “old fashioned” name, despite it being ranked #1 for girls in North America the previous decade (to her credit there were no baby name books or online databases or even books back then). After she realized how common it was, she changed it to “Joy” – for a week. Which would have been so cool! I often daydream about how my life would have been gloriously different and serene if my name was unique and prophetic like Joy! 

But alas, she said it just didn’t feel right, and after a week, changed it back to Jennifer.

The result was having a lot of other Jens, Jenns, Jennifers, Jennas and Jennys in every single class and friend group I had growing up. It was easy to get us confused, so teachers assigned each of us different versions of the name. Or, the worst, being called Jen G, because there was already a Jen T, Jen V, and Jen W. Even now, I have too many friends named Jen, and stories about who did or said what get confused often. My *brother* even married a Jen, which makes family gatherings quite delightful as you can imagine. 

And then there was that time that I was mistaken for Jennifer *Lopez* in a remote Nepalese mountain village in 2004, just because news spread quickly that there was a Jennifer in town. Despite the fact that I look nothing like Jennifer Lopez, it somehow didn’t matter, and within minute kids of all ages were chasing after me yelling “Jennifer Lopez! Jennifer Lopez!” Not being able to communicate to them that I wasn’t, and not wanting to disappoint them, I ended up signing “J-Lo” on the hands and arms of about 36 screaming children, with a half dried up Sharpie. Looking back, I think I made the right decision. You would have too if you had seen their faces!

This has been the life-long frustration of having an all-too-common name. 

There is another woman who probably can relate to a similar frustration, albeit on a different, less *first-world problem* scale, and that is St. Mary Magdalene, whose Feast we celebrate today. 

Her first name, Mary, was the “Jennifer” of the early first century. And she has often been confused several other women: with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha, who sat listening to Jesus while Martha worked and whom then later anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, with the unnamed woman caught in adultery, and the “sinful” women at the well.

Despite it never being mentioned in the Bible that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, this myth has persisted throughout the centuries, ever since a homily given by Pope Gregory I in 591 AD, where he blended all 3 women together as if they were one person. 

Scholars have worked ever since to untangle these separate women.

So who was she really?

She was a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. 

Her initial encounter with Jesus was forever life-altering. The scriptures say he had casted out 7 demons from her. Whether this was literally a demon possession, or a figurative enslavement to the oppressive ways of R Empire of death is up for debate, but one thing is certain: she had a remarkable, life-changing encounter with Jesus, and she left everything to follow him, in the exact same manner that Peter, James, John, and the others had done. 

She travelled with him, provided for him financially, and took care of his daily needs. She was the only disciple there for every critical moment that defined his purpose and changed the course of history – his ministry, his death and his resurrection. 

She was with him in Galilee when he was preaching about the Kingdom of God, of the radical inclusion of those with the least amount of social, political, and economic power – which, as a woman, meant her. This was a way so threatening to those who benefitted from this system that they threw themselves into his destruction.  

She was with him when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and when others cried “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” She was among the palm waving crowd, and mostly likely was estastic that her Lord was going to free her people from the Roman occupation the way he had freed her from her own chains.

She was at the foot of the cross while he was being crucified. When all the men had abandoned him, she didn’t deny or leave him in his hour of great despair. She was faithful.

She then followed as they took his body to the tomb and watched as the stone was rolled into place.

And it this passage we read today (Mark 20:1-18). She arrives at the tomb, sees that the stone has been rolled away, and runs to tell the other disciples. When they arrive again at the tomb, they enter it and see the grave clothes folded and the body missing.

And Mary weeps. I can only imagine what must have been going through her mind. He was supposed to be the Messiah, the one free her people from the Romans, like he had freed her from enslavement to the forces of evil. No, no, no, was not supposed to end like this. 

Very similar, I imagine, to the words of Diamond Reynolds, when her boyfriend Philandro Castille was brutality shot and killed by police. Her haunting words remain in my mind: “Please, sir, don’t tell me that you have just done this to him…” “Please Jesus, no…”

Similar to the world- shattering grief of the son of Alton Sterling, who tragically was killed by police as well.

Similar to the grief of the families of the hundreds killed in attacks in Baghdad, Istanbul, and Nice.

Similar to the grief of the loved ones of those killed in the Orlando nightclub.

Similar to the despair of the families of the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women and men.

I can imagine them all thinking, wrapped up in their grief, like Mary Magdalene, Noooo, It wasn’t supposed to end this way. 

Back in the tomb, Jesus appears to her and says, “Mary” -only her name. We remember what Jesus said before: “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name … they know his voice.” (John 10:3, 4) Jesus knew her deeply, and despite centuries of people misrepresenting her and confusing her, Jesus knew her, and called her out of the tomb of her grief. 

Hearing his voice she cried out, “’Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).” With this particular name Mary claims her place as Jesus’ rabbinical student whereas women in that day were not supposed to study under a rabbi at all.
Jesus response “Do not cling to me” is puzzling and scholars have been perplexed about its meaning for centuries. The interpretation that makes the most sense to me is this:

Mary was so happy to see him, she reached out, but Jesus knowing her heart knew that she was happy to have her old Jesus back, and her own idea about what kind of Messiah he was supposed to be. Jesus had other plans. 

“For I have not yet ascended to the Father” he said. He was not staying, but was passing the torch of kingdom work to his followers, and his presence would remain with her, not in the flesh but in the form of the Holy Spirit and in the community of the Body of Christ.

We, too, may cling to what WE THINK was or is *supposed* to happen. To a utopian past, to a romantic relationship that later failed, to a job or situation or community that we think should have ended differently. 

To us, Jesus calls each of us by name. Deb, Andrea, Kitsune, Beth, Caleb, Danice, Sean, Tom. Insert your own name. Jesus calls us out of our grief and says “Do not cling. Let go. And instead, focus on the kingdom work in front of you in the here and now.”

For Mary this work was telling others about the resurrection.

Raquel S. Lettsome, a biblical scholar, says: 

For a first century Jew, resurrection was “part of a larger picture of what God was going to do for the nation and indeed the world.” Moreover, resurrection was connected to hope and hope is one of the most dangerous things oppressed people can have. N. T. Wright, when writing about resurrection from a Christian perspective notes that its roots are Jewish and “turned those who believed it into a counter-empire, an alternative society that knew the worst that tyrants could do and knew that the true God had the answer.”3 To speak of resurrection then, is to speak of God intervening into the course of human events and existence in a way that upsets the status quo. Therefore the keepers of the system are in danger of losing their system and therefore the status that the system provides.”

This is good news for those without power, but bad news for those with it. For those in positions of privilege and power, equality feels like oppression. 

Which is probably why, even though the scriptures portray Mary as a faithful disciple, the myth of Mary Magdalene the prostitute has remain alive and well. She was portrayed as such in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ, and in the DaVinci Code, and countless paintings and books. 

This is why it is so important to reclaim the memory of her as she really was: faithful disciple, the Apostle to the Apostles, the first resurrection preacher. One who knew the the voice of Jesus who knew her so deeply and called her out of her tomb of despair, into kingdom, by her name.

This is so important friends, especially for my sisters here and the next generation. 

I know this because of how I felt when watching the new Ghostbusters movie last week. Seeing women who are hilarious, smart, and hardworking talk about something other than men, and kicking butt without being overtly objectified or sexualized while doing? It was absolute elation. It’s  like, I didn’t even know that was an option! 

I didn’t know it was an option either, to be called by name into equally meaningful and important kingdom work. 

And so I am grateful to God, for his radically inclusive love, that sees me in my grief, despair, and in my clinging to what I think should have been, and gently says to me, “Jen.” 

Perhaps I could get used to my name after all.

Detox

image

One year ago today, on my 35th birthday, I was in the midst of the deepest depression of my life. I felt bad for the two friends who took me out for lunch, I was too dazed and sad to care.

In the 4 months prior, I had lost my adoring boyfriend, my other most supportive friend, my community house, and access to meaningful work. And with it all, my sense of who I was.

With no safe place to live, no one in my entire Vancouver community had the capacity to house or support me the way I needed to be. I felt so alone. I felt abandoned.

The week between Christmas and New Years was spent in the Psychiatric Assessment Unit at Vancouver General Hospital. The anesthetized, white,empty walls and people numbed with drugs all around me made me feel much, much worse.

It was like all the goodness in my life had been killed off, and I was in mourning. Just a few short months before, I had been enjoying the time and love of my life in Brazil. I had been writing more, making new friends, growing in confidence and joy. And now this.

At the advice of a friend, every night I lit a candle beside my crucifix on my bedside table, turned off the lights, and listened to Taize music. img_0094-3

One song I listened to on repeat was this: Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away.

For me, the fire that God kindled was two-fold. First, God gifted me with the ability to sit in and feel my pain. Not try to fix it, explain it, or pray it away. Second, God gifted me with the desire to learn the shit out of my pain, and grow as much as I could during it.

Sidenote: I am not one to buy the bullshit that everything happens for a reason. It is not helpful for anyone grieving or suffering to hear this. It trivializes the pain and is condescending and not helpful. But I do know this. Suffering provides an opportunity to either turn bitter or better. It’s up to us what we make of it.

I moved back to Barrie, ON, to rest at my folks place. Being in a safe and warm and supportive house helped.

Reading good fiction like The Hunger Games helped. It reminded me of what I love: well-written Story, courage, justice, feminism, peace. The Gospel.

Playing with my nieces and nephews helped. They reminded me of who I was: Aunt Jenny; silly and fun and creative.

Being near my dog Bailey helped. His deep love, fierce loyalty, and gentle presence made me grateful to exist alongside such a miraculous creature.

In Toronto, amazing new and old friends housed and supported me for weeks on end. I was recommended a life coach, found work, a loving house community, and the best therapist one could hope for. I have processed a lot that had been bubbling beneath the surface for decades. I have healed and grown so much. I have learned so much about myself, the mystery of pain and darkness, about God, and about relationships. This last year I have been a student in Life the Freedom School.

Today, on my 36th birthday, I have great friends, a phenomenal house community, incredible neighbours, family and my pup near by, an amazing church, and meaningful work on the horizon.

But above all, I have a fully restored sense of who I am. I have truly learned what the poet Mary Oliver teaches, “Love yourself. Then forget it. And love the world.”

What a difference a year can make! With the support network of a deeply listening and loving community, anything is possible. And looking back, with my own willingness to enter the darkness, feel the pain, mourn it, and then learn all I can, the year was transformed from a shitty waste of time to a deeply significant one.

As Richard Rohr says, “If you don’t transform your pain, you will transmit it to those around you and to the next generation.” I would add you also destroy yourself and waste your pain.

I am grateful I had a supportive community to allow me to enter into this unchartered, painful, yet deeply transformative year not alone.

And to God, my everything: For all that has been, thanks. And for all that shall be, Yes!

Yes And

Yes I am aggressive
Yes I get angry
Yes I often speak before thinking
Yes I have a big mouth
Yes I take things personally
Yes I can be self-absorbed
Yes I can be prideful
Yes I can be arrogant

And I stand up for those who have been wronged,
including myself, even if it will cost me
And I go out of my way to support others,
especially new teachers,
and those who are sick, alone, and marginalized
And I am compassionate
And I am empathetic
And I deplore injustice
And I am fully engaged
And I am self-aware
And I am hilarious

And I am creative
And I am vulnerable
And I am complex
And I am an excellent teacher
And I am quick to forgive
And I am quick to apologize
And I am wanting to learn, grow, change
And I would have stuck up for any of you if unjustly fired
Like I stuck my neck out for Linda
And Rema

And I am full of courage
And I am a warrior
And I dare greatly
And I refuse to listen only to my critics, for

“It is not the critic who counts; not the [wo]man who points out
How the strong [wo]man stumbles,
Or where the doer of deeds could have done them better

“The credit belongs to the [wo]man in the arena
Whose face is marred by dust and blood;
Who strives valiantly; who errs,

“Who comes short again and again,
Because there is no effort
Without error and shortcoming;

“But who does actually strive to do the deeds,
Who knows great enthusiasms,
Who spends [herself] in a worthy cause;

“Who at the best knows in the end
The triumph of high achievement,
And who at the worst, if [she] fails,
At least fails while daring greatly.”

(Theodore Roosevelt)

10 things to do after getting fired from your Intentional Christian Community house

1. Sob real ugly. Once you climb up the stairs after your mediated house meeting with your pastor, and are in your room, shut the door, crouch low to the floor, and let it all go. Sob those gaspy, choke-y type sobs, with your head in your hands, the way you do when you get dumped or someone on LOST finds redemption. Blame yourself, tell yourself you are the worst person in the whole world and nobody will ever love you or want to live with you ever again, especially because, in addition to this mess, you are underemployed, currently homeless and gasp still unmarried at 34 when your brother just had his 8th child. But be quiet about it –cry into your scarf, dammit– so they don’t gather further evidence of your over-emotiveness to purge you even quicker from their midst.

2. Allow your self to feel really bad, for like, 15 minutes. Mourn, grieve, lament– choose any spiritually sorrowful word that fits. Go outside, smoke a cigarette, and ponder the meaning of the beautiful, mocking sunset.

3. Pull yourself together. Suck it up and start packing. This is a good thing. This will be better for you. You had grown so much in the last year and a half and this atmosphere was weighing you DOWN. It kept reminding you of your old, cranky, ego-driven 32-year old self who you SO no longer are (well… you’re on your way).

4. Remember that blog you read like 2 weeks ago called “I AM A F***ING UNICORN: 10 things to do when you get fired for the first time” — and look into the mirror and tell yourself, “I AM A F***ING UNICORN. I am a beautiful, mystical creature. I have lots and lots of good things to offer this world, and for too long I have been forcing myself to act like a horse. And every time I did, my golden horn was losing it’s magical powers. No more, baby. I’m free!! I’m free to prancerize my way back to being my happy, generous, fun-loving, creative self!” After you get dropped off at your friends’ place where you are crashing for a few days, pop open a bottle of – juice, that’s all she has – and allow yourself to feel happy and relieved that the worst is finally over.

5. As the high starts to wear off, after like 10 minutes, get into your jammies and binge-watch The Mindy Project to avoid dealing with it.

6. Wake up the next morning and feel home-sick for your old room in your old house with your old housemates. (What, you thought this was a progressively happier list?) Allow yourself to feel sad again. Cry when you receive texts from your ex-housemates that are also feeling horrible about this mess, but secretly feel relieved that they are not celebrating your absence with champagne and circus clowns.

7. Open up your journal and turn the sermon notes you made during the retreat 3 weeks ago, when that wise, female pastor/scholar who has endured so much was speaking about suffering. Remember her talking about all the faithful in Hebrews 11. Some lived great lives of faith, and were victorious and blessed. And “some were sawn asunder.” Some people lived great lives of faith and goodness, but they were met with lives of chaos, torture, and huge amounts of suffering. Living well, and being faithful, does not guarantee a life protected from pain. And enduring a painful past does not guarantee a painless present or future. But always, the God whose name is “I Shall Be There” will be present. You are never alone. And remember that the great cloud of witnesses, all the saints of the past are cheering you on, even now: “Courage!”

8. Breathe. Get out your handmade Anglican prayer beads, and pray the prayer of Saint Francis. Spend 20 minutes in centering silence. Let go. Let go. Let go. Bless the one with whom you are angry, and pray for peace, healing, and reconciliation.

9. Prescribe yourself some art and nature therapy. Go on a bike ride to the art supply store, take detours down the streets with the most red and yellow leaved trees. See that God has created the world beautiful for you, and nature is still majestically following ordered rhythms. Your pain is not all there is. Help your friend with the decorations for her mountaineering-themed wedding this weekend. Draw, and plan for some linocut prints and cards for the All-Handmade Sale coming up. Memorize a huge chunk of Ephesians for a dramatized scripture presentation at church on Sunday. Plan for it to be complete with masked djembe-players and a soul-less-turned-soulful mob, and dancing to a new rhythm after letting go of the old. Write this blog post, and laugh at yourself.

10. Be grateful. For your dear friend’s wedding. For seeing old friends. For laughter. For Over the Rhine. For upcoming, meaningful work. For lentil barely stew on a rainy day. And for new, affordable housing, with a lovely, generous woman, that seemed to drop out of the sky.

So this is Christmas (War is Not Over)

Today is one of the days in the church calendar that I most appreciate – the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. During the 12 days of  Christmas, there is a day to remember that the birth of the Prince of Peace threatened the Roman Empire so much that it resorted immediately to the tool that marks every empire – violence. With a lust for power and control, King Herod ushered a decree that baby boys under the age of two be massacred, in hopes of killing the one who was deemed to be the true King. It was a state-sponsored infanticide, thousands were murdered, and the Holy Family fled as refugees.

As I’m writing this my nieces and nephews are squealing with delight as they run around and play with each other. The two youngest are under two years of age, and I cannot imagine the horror of an army coming around and murdering them in cold blood. (Later,  at the dinner table, I was discussing this article, and my dad asked why the “Holy Innocents” are so “Holy”. My 9 year old nephew wondered if it was because being holy is being set apart for God, and these infants died instead of Jesus, so they were set apart in heaven. Genius.)

My appreciation of this awful day might seem a little masochistic, but after the peace and beauty and joy that we’re all supposed to feel at Christmas (and I do often feel and love these things), I like being thrown back into the reality that for most people in the world, life is completely cruel and marked mostly by suffering. Because it’s authentic.

As I speak, violence is rising in the South Sudan and the newly formed country is quickly deteriorating – with hundreds of innocents slaughtered in the past two weeks and a friend of mine having to evacuate the country.

Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers drive in a truck in Juba, Wouth Sudan, December 21, 2013.

Sudan People’s Liberation Army soldiers drive in a truck in Juba, Wouth Sudan, December 21, 2013.

The number of Syrian refugees continues to rise well over the million-mark.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border.

Disaster is still wide-spread in the Philippines after the horrendous typhoon.

Children hold signs asking for help and food along the highway, after Typhoon Haiyan hit Tabogon town in The Philippines

Children hold signs asking for help and food along the highway, after Typhoon Haiyan hit Tabogon town in The Philippines

The empire of globalized capitalism consumes its slave-labour victims year by year.

Clothing garment factory in Bangladesh deemed "slave labour" "Against God" by Pope Francis

Clothing garment factory in Bangladesh deemed “slave labour” “Against God” by Pope Francis

In my own country of Canada, First Nations people were ruthlessly slaughtered and are still being perpetually thrown aside on their own land, their “reserves” more like majority-world countries, and their commitment to stewarding their land well by resisting the oil pipeline pushed by the settler state is ignored.

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

This day provides the opportunity to cut out all of the bullshit that sometimes comes with Christmas – the other-worldly angelic joy, the commercialism of it all, the pretending that Christmas has saved us all – because it hasn’t…yet.

The Massacre was the introduction of what Christ was up against in his lifetime, and it is what we are up against in ours. For Christ there was a violent empire that when challenged, would not hesitate to kill and destroy all in its path, and the same is true for us. The penalty for following this Prince of Peace into the darkness and the suffering will ultimately threaten the empires that rule today (if we are doing it right), and hell hath no fury like a threatened empire.

So what to do?

As Anne Lamott says in her new book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, “we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.” She continues,  “we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross [like Mary], and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….To be honest, that sucks. It’s the worst, even if you are the mother of God.”

Presence and solidarity with those who are suffering, without any cute platitudes like “God’s plan is perfect” — which only makes things worse — is hard, but it’s so essential and a good place to start.

But then what? Lamott continues

Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it. We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild towns after hurricanes and tornados. We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbour, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry…we live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky.

Or, we can do something equally dramatic, and go be present with those most suffering in our world, and work with and for them in whatever way you are gifted and able.

For as my seminary professor of Ethics of Wealth and Poverty once said, every act of social justice (or simple kindness, in my opinion) is a foretaste and foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of justice, peace, and flourishing for all.

So today, we remember. We educate ourselves, and others. We lament. We are present with the suffering. We get stitchin’.

But first, we let go of all of our sadness and meager attempts to God. From the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Amen.

Solidarity, Resistance, and Liberation: Why Christians Should Occupy

This article was originally written for the Et Cetera, the newspaper of the Christian graduate school I attend here in Vancouver, Regent College. I was responding to an article entitled “Why I Will Not Occupy Vancouver” written by a friend of mine, where her concerns about the movement were outlined: the protesters are costing taxpayers too much money, the movement is too complex and confusing, and those involved should do something more useful like “occupy a job” and/or volunteer at a soup kitchen or teach literacy to kids. This is my response.

I would like to begin by thanking my friend BJ Bruder for her article last week that outlined why she would not Occupy Vancouver. On one level, I can identify with her frustration that the movement seems to be so complex and confusing that it is hard to pinpoint the purpose and “effectiveness” of the protest. I can also understand her suspicion that some of the protesters seem to be members of a privileged class who have the luxury of not having to work in order to camp out downtown for days at a time. How would it be justifiable that a student of privilege would protest the economic system that benefited his or her own wealthy family? This is a good question worth considering.

Her article presents an opportunity to consider an answer to this and other good questions. What exactly is this movement about? What is the purpose of a protest? Should Christians protest? If so, why?  If not, is charity work a better use of one’s time? Why or why not? Could there be good reasons why “able-bodied” or “privileged” people would join the Occupy Movement other than that they nothing better to do?

Starting with the last question, I would like to answer yes. There are three reasons I can think of, and they happen to be the title of a Regent course I took last summer: “Solidarity, Resistance, and Liberation: The Way of God in the World” taught by Dave Diewert in the Downtown Eastside.

First, Solidarity. As Christians we are called to not only think of ourselves, but to stand alongside those who are weak, suffering, and outcast. In the incarnation, God chose to leave behind his place of comfort and privilege and be born as a poor, homeless refugee in order to stand alongside those who were poor, broken, and oppressed. Moses chose to leave behind his life of luxury in Pharoah’s palace and act in solidarity with his people who were enslaved – though granted the violence was not the best means. Still, he chose not to ignore the Hebrew’s plight of slavery, and when God called him from the burning bush, he returned to his own people to liberate them from oppression in Egypt. Paul cast off his life of privilege–enjoying comfort as a Roman citizen–in order to suffer persecution with his fellow Christians. The Occupy Movement is a chance for all people–including those who are privileged–to stand alongside those who are the worst victims of economic and political policies that put the power in the hands of banks and multinational corporations while essentially eroding true democracy.

For BJ to suggest that the “privileged” protesters should “occupy a job” merely buys into the core problem that is being protested. The sentiment betrays the notion that “for a person to be of any value, they have to be economically productive citizens. They need to contribute to the economy, to the bottom line, to what makes our society tick” writes Andrew Stephens-Rennie on his blog Empire Remixed. He goes on, “And yet. And yet, isn’t this precisely the point? Isn’t it precisely the point of these protests that our government, banks and major corporations have crucified human dignity with their unwavering emphasis on an economic bottom line ignorant of human suffering?” God calls us to be more than economically productive, he calls us to love. My friends Dan and Trista, who both have jobs and are part of Occupy Vancouver, have chosen to work less and live in community, sharing many assets in common with others, so that they can spend more time and resources being active in their wider communities. They work in solidarity with those who are suffering in order to dream up and live into another way of being.

Second, Resistance. As evangelicals, it is easy for us to only think of resisting evil in terms of personal morality. We must resist the temptation to lie, gossip, judge others, and view pornography. All these things are necessary to do, for they can be destructive to both ourselves personally and to our communities. However, thinking of morality in these ways alone betrays a radical individualism that stems from a modernist way of being in the world, and is deeply unbiblical. In Scripture, we see the prophets repeatedly condemn Israel for structural evil and national immorality. Israel, as a nation, broke the covenant, oppressed the poor, and ignored the practices of jubilee. The Occupy Movement brings to our attention the structural sin of our global economy – a system that benefits the wealthy minority (the 1%), giving them power to make decisions that negatively affect the majority (the 99%). We must prophetically resist the systems and structures of power that dehumanize and oppress. God brought Israel out of Egypt, a economic powerhouse dependent on human slavery, and into a new way of being in the world, based on principles of equality, jubilee, and shalom for all people. We too are to resist Empires of injustice and live into another way of being, based on Kingdom principles of justice, compassion, and love.

BJ has argued that it might be more useful for people to volunteer, doing positive things like teaching literacy or working at a soup kitchen. While these are acts of mercy, they are only band-aid solutions and do not address the core issues that create illiteracy or homelessness. As Christians we are called act justly, which is about working for social change. It’s like coming across wounded people at the bottom of a cliff and working only to tend to their wounds, while more and more people are falling off the cliff. You can set up a hospital and bring in more doctors, which would be good acts of mercy. But eventually someone must go up to the top of the cliff and find out who or what is causing the people to fall off the cliff! This is the difference between charity and justice. Charity would be following BJ’s suggestion of working at a soup kitchen. But soup kitchens have been around for thousands of years, and nothing has changed. The Occupy Movement (along with community development-based initiatives like Jacob’s Well and Just Potters) –  is about addressing the core problems with our society that cause people to need soup hand-outs in the first place, and giving them some dignity by working together with them for lasting social change.

Which brings me to my third reason, Liberation. Brian Walsh, author of Colossians Remixed and Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in an Age of Displacement, said this weekend at the Beyond Homelessness: The Church and Affordable Housing Forum, that as a society, we need a better story that the one we have been living for the past couple hundred years. The story of neo-liberal capitalism is essentially mean-spirited, radically individualistic, and has obviously not worked to “lift all boats” as its proponents promised it would. We need a story that is centered around bringing all people home – that is, to a place of belonging, relationship with God and others, and access to the resources all need to be involved in home-making. Our society, centered around the idol of the American Dream, has essentially rendered many people homeless, and not only physically. Many who have physical houses to live in are homeless in the sense that they feel isolated, depressed, overworked, and feel no attachment or responsibility to the place they live in and the people who live there. They long for something more. They long for a sense of home.

As Christians, we are to live into a different story, a home-making story. The story that started with the great home-breaking of all time (Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden, and out of right relationship with God and each other), and ends with the greatest home-coming of all time (reconciliation with God, others, and all of creation). Through this story, we are called to be people who embody home-making, by building community with our neighbours, by caring for our creational home and a specific place within it, and by finding our true sense of belonging and home in God. This includes justice, for as Brian Walsh said, “justice is a society where home-making is possible for all.” This is true liberation, and this can be our reason, as Christians, for participating in the Occupy Movement. It is a chance for people to get together and dream, and talk, and believe that another world, another way of being, is possible.

Sound too idealistic? It can never happen? That’s what the cynics said about the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, or the Apartheid movement led by Desmond Tutu, or the Independence Movement in India led by Ghandi. I believe that we don’t have to settle for the ways things are. I believe in social change, and not only so that we can see God’s kingdom, as we pray, “on earth as it is in heaven,” but also as an act of eschatological hope. Every act of social justice is an anticipation, a foretaste, of the truly just future that is to come. A future in the New Heavens and New Earth where there will be no more tears, poverty, or oppression, but enough resources, community, and love for all.

I would like to extend an invitation to BJ and all others who would like to me to go down to the Occupy Vancouver site this weekend. Perhaps by actually meeting the people who are acting in solidarity and resistance for the purpose of liberation, we too will be inspired to dream up a new way of being in the world. Come with us, those who are curious, those who are cynical, those who are tired, those who long for another way. Come as an act of eschatological hope.


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